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Emilia Kovalcsik
Emilia Kovalcsik

How to stop reacting and start responding

Do you often replay a past situation or conversation in your head and wish you responded differently? Or are the best answers coming to you right after you finish the meeting or just after you hit the “Send” button?

I think we all had at least one conversation when we said something too quickly or we reacted in a way we wish we hadn’t. Unfortunately, we can’t take our words back, not every e-mail can be recalled, and an aggressive reaction rarely gets forgotten.

Reaction vs Response


When we react, we don’t take time to think our answers through. Our emotions take over, and our reaction is automatic; it is more of an impulse than anything else. It can be as simple as rolling the eyes when we hear an idea we find silly or a burst of derisive laughter when we should keep a straight face. The reaction is the first thing we do, very often involuntary, when an event occurs. Like hitting “Reply to All” and sending “You’ve got to be kidding me” to 30 people…

A response then follows the first reaction. It can happen that it will be the same, as your first reaction might have been just the right one. However, a response comes more slowly and gives time to consider the effect of your answer. Usually, a thoughtful response can save you from awkward situations and often damaging consequences. If your default reaction to bad news is shouting and blaming, you will not hear about issues until it is too late and they explode in your face.

So, even though we often use the words to react and to respond interchangeably, I think we all feel the difference between them. We would instead respond than react, especially in our workplaces (ok, if a tiger chases us, we probably don’t need to figure out a better response than RUN!).

Ideas to help you stop reacting and start responding


What you need is just a few seconds to let the first rush of a reaction pass and a more mindful answer appear. Just a few seconds and the Reply to All button is not that good of an idea anymore.

How do you gain these few seconds, though? A few tips and some ideas you might find helpful to get the few seconds for your response to form

  • Breath – yeah, I know how it sounds. The thing is that it works. If you take time to have a few full breaths before answering, it gives you just a few seconds you need before exploding and biting your colleague’s head off
  • Count to 5 – quietly in your head (or aloud if you want to confuse whoever you are talking to)
  • When talking to someone, repeat what they just said and ask if you understood it well. This trick will give you time and perhaps an idea of how to respond best when hearing again what was just said
  • Stand up and walk a bit if you can, let your body move to help your head clean, gain a different perspective by changing your position
  • Instead of calling someone immediately to tell them what you think about them and their work, instead take time to write an e-mail, give yourself a few minutes before responding
  • When you are tempted to write a nasty e-mail – do it, and don’t send it! The initial anger will get its way out, and you will be able to compose a new answer without emotions (I have a collection of those unsent e-mails…)
  • And when you know that a few seconds is not enough, be honest and say that you need time to think about your response. And take your time. It is always better to answer with a delay than to give it immediately and ruin a good relationship or a chance to close a critical project.

What else?


You also want to remember that you have a choice and that YOU are in charge of your reactions. At first, it will be challenging to change your habitual response – I still sometimes do roll my eyes when faced with stupid hmm unexpected ideas – but with time and attention, you can build a new set of reactions that will serve you, your team and your work much better.

Try to recognize your patterns and situations that trigger your unwanted reactions, give them some thought and understand what gives the impulse to acting.

  • Are you triggered by people being late with their work?
  • Are you exploding when faced with errors in the reports?
  • Or maybe your team member keeps coming late for meetings?

Ask yourself the following:

  • What are my current responses to those events? Is it anger, annoyance, shouting and perhaps disrespectful comments to my colleagues
  • What are the consequences of these? What are my reactions causing? When I act like that are people delivering on time, are they making fewer errors?
  • What would I rather have? Respect and understanding that timely and correctly performed work is in the best interest of everyone

When you answer these questions and you understand your motives and what you want to achieve, your response becomes easier and will come more naturally to you. Give it a go and see what you can achieve.

How will you respond to that?

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